Can We Get the Statesmanship We Need?
The late Henry Kissinger offered some urgent advice
Our next president faces a host of foreign perils: great powers flouting international law, destructive wars, persistent terrorism and random cyberattacks undermining world order. Well-established nations strain to cope with globalization and mass migration. Failed or fragile states proliferate across the map. The transnational guardrails limiting nuclear proliferation may be breaking down, and runaway AI technology may soon supersede human agency.
Meanwhile, the U.S. appears to carom from crisis to crisis, with no real strategy. Today, as the late Henry Kissinger described it, we face “a world of increasingly contradictory realities”: the universal spread of technology alongside competing political visions that challenge the legitimacy of the international order.
Can we still find the leaders capable of coping with such challenges? Before his death late last year, Kissinger, arguably America’s most important public intellectual, analyzed America’s key foreign policy dilemmas. Writing in his late 80s and 90s on diverse topics such as China, the advance of disruptive technology and the characteristics of transformative leadership, Kissinger’s observations have pressing relevance.
Many readers probably consider Kissinger as a devotee of European-style realpolitik, an inaccurate caricature. In his later works, he diverges, as his biographer Niall Ferguson noted, from the typical foreign-affairs definition of “realist” as one who privileges “pragmatism over morality” and “equilibrium for its own sake.” For instance, Kissinger admired Immanuel Kant’s vision of perpetual peace as maintained by a global federation of republics and would cite Kant’s vision in his writings. According to Ferguson, studying Kant as a university student made Kissinger distrust grand political or economic theories as being “on the right side of history.” Individual leaders, for Kissinger, have more impact than “blind historical forces.”
Kissinger certainly regarded the state and its interests as the proper focus for international relations. Yet, Kissinger did not believe in “raison d’état” without limits, nor did he advocate U.S. global hegemony. On the contrary, he insisted on the importance of international institutions, laws and norms, but especially respect for countries’ history, culture and traditions. As he states in “World Order” (2014): “Tradition matters because it is not given to societies to proceed through history as if they had no past and as if every course of action were available to them.” Consequently, the United States must act in accordance with its own core values.
Kissinger hailed the realist Theodore Roosevelt as the first president who grasped the world as a global system. But his rival Woodrow Wilson, committed to advancing democracy and international institutions to preserve the peace, “touched an essential chord in the American soul” and harnessed American idealism to foreign policy ends. Wilson’s doctrine, “unmoored from a sense of history or proportions,” in Kissinger words, remains a seductive vision. Even Kissinger’s boss Richard Nixon wanted to appear like a Wilsonian, despite employing most of Roosevelt’s realist precepts.
But as Ferguson notes, realism too is “fraught with perils,” such as potentially offending a democratic public and corrupting leadership with too much power. Kissinger quoted Lee Kuan Yew in “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy” (2022) on the need for a more transcendent vision: “if you are just realistic, you become pedestrian, plebian, you will fail. Therefore, you must be able to soar above the reality and say, ‘This is also possible.’”
Can we strike a balance between realism and idealism to help construct a new global system? We perhaps need to lean more toward realism going forward. Our international consulting mechanisms such as the United Nations and the G-8, Kissinger argued, are too formalized and no longer serve their intended purpose. For Kissinger, alliances have more utility than vague concepts such as collective security. “Collective security,” he wrote in “World Order,” “is unworkable in situations that most seriously threaten international peace and security.”
The Danger of Unrestrained Technology
As Kant once observed, we are burdened with questions we cannot dismiss and cannot easily answer. Writing in “World Order,” Kissinger recognized that new communications technology raises such questions because it brings clashing ideas and positions into more intimate and immediate contact. Paradoxically, our greater technological capacity has increased our vulnerability. “Few eras have faced a strategic and technical challenge so complete,” he said, “and with so little consensus about either nature of the challenge.”
During the 1950s, when strategists contemplated how wars might be waged with nuclear weapons, Kissinger theorized the U.S. could keep nuclear weapons use relegated to the battlefield. But in his public career, he advocated nuclear arms control treaties, and in the first decade of the 21st century, he joined other prominent Americans in advocating the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, whose use, he believed, is “disconnected from their consequences.” The chances of miscalculation are great, and the situation is too precarious to rely on the deterrent power of nuclear weapons. Kissinger moreover warned of the impact of other powerful, disruptive technologies such as the internet and AI. A serious flaw in international governance, he maintained, is that we have failed to rein in the free-for-all of cyberattacks sponsored by sovereign states.
In “The Age of AI: And Our Human Future,” Kissinger and his co-authors address the problems of how artificial intelligence might be outstripping our ability to tame it. “What happens to international order,” he asked “if technology has become such a part of everyday life that it defines its own universe as the sole, relevant one? To balance technology, we require enhanced powers of human, transcendent and geopolitical judgment.”
New technologies are even changing human thought. The internet, he wrote in “World Order,” places “emphasis on the actual more than the contingent, on the factual rather than the conceptual, on values shaped by consensus rather than introspection.” This mouse-click approach to knowledge works against deep thinking and diminishes historical memory. Writing in “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy,” he noted the new communications technologies encourage new biases such as immediacy (the idea that the most recent events are the most urgent) and polarity (the focus on extreme views, no matter how few people actually hold them)—but, ironically, also conformity. In place of leaders, the new technology gives us “influencers”; in place of citizens, followers.
The China Challenge
Effective policies on AI, cybersecurity and nuclear weapons will require a strategy for constructive relations with China. How can we live with this strong and ambitious power?
In “On China” (2011), Kissinger analyzed the development of China’s political history and offered his hope that we might find common ground with this vital but uncertain pillar of the international order. He stressed China’s flexibility, self-containment and lack of a crusading mission. But China resides in a contested neighborhood where traditional balance of power predominates, and a military confrontation is always possible. Kissinger was haunted by the lesson of World War I, in which competing power blocs led to disaster.
Kissinger praised President George H.W. Bush’s restrained handling of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre as an example of the correct approach to China: “Bush walked a tightrope with skill and elegance.” Sanctioning China but not cutting ties, Bush kept in sight the overall engagement strategy while staying true to core U.S. values.
Kissinger, unlike his former Harvard colleague Graham Allison, rejected the “Thucydides’ trap” that a rising power like China is destined to clash militarily with a status-quo power like the U.S. We must affirm our basic principles while minimizing the opportunities for conflict. But an overt containment policy, Kissinger warned, would be feared and resisted by China. Both sides have proponents of “inherent conflict,” making the odds of miscalculation great.
Kissinger feared turning our rivalry with China into an ideological struggle like the Cold War. But perhaps this was inevitable. As Kissinger recognized, for the U.S., war and peace represent distinct phases; for China, they are but two blurry sides of the same “great power rivalry” coin.
Is Great Leadership Still Possible?
“Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy,” Kissinger’s last testament, surveys the careers of six political leaders: Adenauer, De Gaulle, Nixon, Sadat, Thatcher and Lee Kuan Yew, drawing insights from their lives on what qualities we might seek in today’s leaders. All these leaders came of age in what he called “the Second Thirty Years’ War” (1914-1945) and share some common characteristics, not least of which is that they positively changed their countries’ stature in the international order.
As Kissinger saw it, our next leader must defend freedom and advance the cause of peace, but also seek to coexist with powerful rivals such as China. We cannot impose our will on the world, but we can stay true to our values and interests.
Perpetual peace, in the Kantian vision that inspired Kissinger, can be achieved either by human insight or by catastrophes. As Kissinger noted, “The old order is in flux, while the shape of its replacement is highly uncertain.” Can U.S. society support the requirements of new “balance of power” strategies along with universal principles? Can it find the leadership to make such a strategy work? The statesman, he wrote, “must act at the outer edge of the possible, bridging the gap between his society’s experiences and its aspirations.”
Kissinger saw diplomacy today as characterized by moral posturing and quick reactions to “the mood of the moment,” as disconnected from true strategy. It threatens to turn foreign policy into “a subdivision of domestic politics.” Foreign policy today must achieve a “coherent and purposeful direction” and will require daring and imagination. The need for courage, even physical courage, is indispensable.
In today’s polarized and technology-saturated culture, are we still capable of generating the necessary introspective and courageous leadership? All six leaders from Kissinger’s “Leadership” study came from the middle class of their societies and were “grounded in their national experiences.” Five of the six had a religious upbringing, which he believed gave them habits of self-reflection and “instilled self-mastery and a preference for taking the long-view—two essential attributes of statesmanship.”
Kissinger believed we need to reform our education from an overreliance on technology to a system that conforms with “the long-term direction of the country and the cultivation of its values.” Our “faltering meritocracy,” he believed, has focused too much on technical prowess and credentials. Potential leaders must engage in the serious study of history and philosophy, the “traditional wellsprings of the statesman’s imagination.”
Education, moreover, must focus more on cultivating good judgment and introspection. Writing in “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy,” Kissinger advocated paying more attention to acquiring knowledge through books, which demand “conceptual thinking.” All of his six leaders valued contemplative time spent with extensive reading. This form of “deep literacy” helps preserve historical memory, which is being lost in the internet age but often leads to insight and inspiration. These days, Kissinger mused, reading a serious book is tantamount to a countercultural act.
Today’s true leaders will face strong headwinds. They must refuse to give way to “vast impersonal forces.” Like Kissinger’s six leaders, they likely will be “dividers,” not consensus-seekers, but this is inevitable for leadership in uncertain times. With reference to Max Weber in his classic address “Politics as a Vocation,” they will need to say, “Nevertheless, despite everything.”